May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Strategies for Assessing Student Understanding in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Sara Dozier

Like me, you are probably excited about the opportunities that the Next Generation Science Standards offer students and teachers. For the first time in 17 years, our science standards are asking us to engage our students in science learning that is engaging, meaningful and just plain fun. In addition to our excitement, though, there is also some apprehension.

One concern teachers share is how accountability will work for the California NGSS. What will “the test” look like? The new NGSS-aligned California science assessment system is in the early design stages so we don’t yet know for certain. The State Implementation Plan for California NGSS indicates a pilot of the new NGSS-aligned monitoring assessment system in 2016-17, with the assessment system to be fully operational in 2018-19. Some teachers may consider waiting until we can see the new assessment system before they change their teaching and assessment practices. However, we have a gift of time to teach students how to express their science knowledge in all three dimensions of NGSS on assessments and use the rich information from these tasks to guide instruction. There is no time like the present to start making the shifts needed in the long run.

But what does three-dimensional assessment look like, anyway? And, how can teachers start shifting without burying themselves in the work of writing and grading these new assessments? The steps below describe one way to start transitioning during the awareness and transition phases. During implementation, we will need assessments that are fully aligned with the Performance Expectations. By starting now, we can start teaching our students and ourselves these skills in parallel with the work of transitioning our curriculum toward the NGSS. Build on your existing curriculum to start shifting now using the steps described below.

Go slowly and start with what you already have.  Three-dimensional learning means that you have a task that assesses the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices and the Cross Cutting Concepts. To assess understanding, start by using the NGSS-aligned work students do as they are learning, rather than creating new, separate NGSS tasks for learning and tasks for assessment.

  • Example Lesson Embedded Assessment: the familiar Can Crusher activity
  • Traditional Demonstration: Boil 10 mL of water in an empty soda can. Using tongs, invert the can into cold water. The can crushes.
  • Modifications for NGSS: After teacher approval of experimental design, students investigate the effect of different variables on the phenomenon. (See NGSS Appendix D for a detailed lesson sequence that utilizes this experiment.)

Don’t try to fit all three dimensions into one question. Teachers are experienced writers of items (test questions, writing or discussion prompts, etc.) that assess the Disciplinary Core Ideas, and we should incorporate those items as we develop new tasks. Learning and assessment tasks should not be a single item, but contain multiple items that collectively measure all three dimensions.

Examine the Science and Engineering Practices. To assess the Science and Engineering Practices, choose the practice most aligned to your instructional task. For the Can Crusher example, we explore the Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Refer to the NGSS Appendix F and find your grade band in the progression. Identify just one bullet point that you will focus on in the lesson.

A grade 6-8 example: “Evaluate the accuracy of various methods for collecting data.” To address this, you might start with a whole class discussion of how different groups measured the dependent variable or use an exit slip to see how they they understand the role of data collection in understanding the properties of different states of matter. You could add an analysis question to their lab write-up asking, ”How did you choose to collect data in your experiment? If you could revise your data collection plan to be more accurate, what would you change and how would it improve your accuracy?”

The important part is that you understand how they are evaluating accuracy in the context of this scientific understanding.

Frame student responses through the lens of the Crosscutting Concepts. Assessing the Crosscutting Concepts may seem more challenging. I suggest a similar approach, this time referring to NGSS Appendix G, identifying a bullet from “Progression of the Crosscutting Concepts,” and eliciting your students’ thinking through that lens.

For example, the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect provides this description: “Relationships can be classified as causal or correlational, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” In the Can Crusher example students might identify the observed effect and describe their understanding of the cause. This could be followed by a discussion of the evidence supporting the claim that the condensation of water vapor actually caused the collapse, rather than just appearing to happen at the same time.

This may be the first time your students have been asked to distinguish between correlation and causation in science.  This is a great opportunity to use classroom discourse to build an understanding of the distinction while at the same time you listen to their conversations to assess their understanding.

Use your questions to get inside their heads. All tasks should give you a clear window into how your students use their science knowledge, not just whether they wrote the “right” answer. Arriving at a normative, developmentally appropriate understanding of science is coupled with the process students use to gain that understanding. Writing prompts and questions that elicit student explanations of their thought process is in sharp contrast to multiple-choice items. These items are challenging for teachers to design, made doubly so by students’ unfamiliarity with answering them. Teachers and students need practice to become comfortable with this type of learning and assessment. Start with items you currently use, and write down some possible responses or look at actual student work from past experiences. With these anticipated responses in mind, determine whether this particular item provides deep insight to the students’ thinking or just the opportunity to demonstrate rote learning (e.g. define vocabulary, run an algorithm). Modify these items to encourage students to share their thinking.

Don’t worry about how to grade these new items. Grading is an important part of our work, as it provides clear feedback to students, parents, and outside entities about the student’s achievement. While we are exploring this new type of assessment, it will be difficult to assign proficiency-based grades. With practice you will be much more comfortable identifying three-dimensional learning goals and assigning grades based on their progress toward the goal. When you feel ready to change your grading structure, see Formative Assessment & Standards‑Based Grading by Marzano for one creative approach.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. As we move toward the 2018-19 operational California NGSS-aligned assessment, we need to build our students’ capacity to demonstrate their ability to use their science knowledge as they engage in the Science and Engineering Practices as the Crosscutting Concepts. It may be a bit bumpy at first, but remember teachers and students alike are all learning this new way of teaching and learning. As teachers, we need to find ways to elicit responses that allow us to see inside our students’ thinking. As you shift your classroom culture and teaching practices toward the NGSS, keep these ideas in mind to prepare to enter the implementation phase of California NGSS.

Other NGSS Assessment Resources

Concord Consortium NGSS Assessment Project- Sample Assessment Tasks

California NGSS Implementation Plan

Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards, NRC Committee Report, June 2014

Invitational Research Symposium on Science Assessment, September 24–25, 2013

Sara Dozier is Science Coordinator, Integrated Middle School Science Partnership at the Alameda County Office of Education.  She was invited to write for CCS by Lisa Hegdahl.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.